I first read A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab in April 2018, and this review was originally posted on my Goodreads account then. Some edits and expansions have been made to this review.
This is quite a good fantasy novel! The characters are excellent, the world is fascinating, and the plot is exciting. It’s pretty much everything I want from a book in this genre.
To summarize this book is a little complicated: In this alternate historical setting (think Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), there are four different versions of London — four alternate universes that only a select few can travel between. In each London, magic is different, from being in symbiosis with the people to nonexistent… to insidious. Kell, one of our main characters, is a traveler/ambassador, taking messages (and sometimes illicit trinkets) between worlds. But when he is pickpocketed by a street thief named Lila, both parties get more than they bargained for when it turns out that the stolen object in question is far more treacherous than Kell imagined.
Kell is a good protagonist. He is very adaptive, and his magic is quite — there’s no other word for it, really — cool. His powers feel so much a part of him, and they are written so well, that I felt at home looking through his eyes. He is a brave, intelligent hero, yet one who still makes mistakes and has vulnerabilities. He sometimes makes rash decisions and on occasion is somewhat blindsided by his affection for those he cares about. However, his bond with another major character, Rhy, is just wonderful. The deep affection is evident all the time they are in the same room, and indeed all the time we are reading Kell’s POV. I loved seeing a rounded protag like this, particularly a male fantasy protag.
As for Lila, our other main character, she is… simply awesome. She’s very savvy and sassy, with street smarts to contrast delightfully with Kell’s more specialized magical know-how. She was probably my favorite, for various reasons: her casual eschewing of societal gender roles, her cleverness, her rounded characterization that made her feel quite real, and the fact that she wants to be a pirate.
Holland was an intriguing character, as were Astrid and Athos. Their interactions with one another and with Kell were some of the most tense, engaging scenes (and in a novel full of these scenes, that’s saying something). Many hints at plot points to come are present in this book, particularly, I think in regards to Holland’s actions. And Schwab did a great job making her captive audience (read: me) desperate to know more.
I have only one minor critique: the pacing. I wish Schwab had lingered on some things a bit more — for example, I wish we had seen more of Kell’s home, his family, and generally just get even more immersive in the multiple Londons. I feel like at times we sped through some things I wanted to spend more time on (at 400 pages, it felt rather not long enough to me for some reason; I suppose I’m used to longer novels in this genre!). But really this is not a major issue for me, because there are two more books 🙂
In the end I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I can’t wait to read the next one!
Overall rating: 8.5/10
What did you think of Darker Shade? Or, what’s the best fantasy novel you’ve read so far this year?